Slumlords, highjackers or gentrification?


Over the last few years there has been a growing problem of “highjacked” buildings in the inner-city of Johannesburg. Owners of building are prevented from collecting rent or even running their buildings by alleged highjackers. In some cases the “highjackers” hire security companies to secure the buildings, and they sometimes set up Trust Accounts into which rents are paid. Estimates of how many buildings in Johannesburg are ‘highjacked’ vary wildly. At one point the Mayor spoke about 500 hijacked buildings, although to date only 11 buildings are being targeted by the City.

In 2017 the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, Cllr Herman Mashaba promised Joburg residents that he will make the city clean and regain its dignity. On 4 January 2018 Mashaba, the Speaker of Council, Cllr Vasco da Gama, the new Chief of Police for the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD), Mr David Tembe, and officials from the Group Forensics Investigative Unit opposed a bail application of Johnathan Constable, an alleged property hijacker kingpin in the City, and his two co-accused, Bongani Khathide and Kingsley Eze. Reports in the press show a growing problem that has seen people die due to fire in some cases, and a growing health hazard of buildings that are not maintained.

There is a lot of pressure on the City Council to deal with ‘highjacked’ buildings. Property owners are threatning to withdraw investments in the inner-city if the Council does not deal with the ‘highjackers’. As the property owners in the City become more organised they are also using the problem of highjacking buildings as a cover to break the resistance of tenants to slum landlords who do not maintain their building but charge high rentals. Many cases of ‘highjackings’ reported in the press show signs of tenants who are resisting evictions. Tenants have refused to pay rent to the landlord and have instead set up Trust Accounts into which the rent is paid. These tenants have also defended themselves in the courts. These are not cases of ‘faceless’ criminals who are highjacking buildings. Tenants are also reported to have organised themselves into the relatively unknown Mzansi Progressive Movement. This movement is reported to have submitted a petition to the City Council in which it called for landlords to stop evictions in the inner-city and for the buildings to be used as RDP houses for poor residents of the inner-city.

In recent years inner-city residents have been battling attempts to gentrify the inner-city. Gentrification refers to the process where landlords in cities drive out poor people and replace them with tenants that can pay high rents. The city is changed to cater for these well-off residents. This process of gentrification took an ugly turn when the residents of Fattis Mansions in Harrison Street in the inner-city were evicted by Red Ants on 21 July 2017. Although the residents were owners of the flats that they bought in the late 1990s, the administrators of the building applied to the Court to declare the building ‘dangerous’ for tenants. The media was quick to refer to Fattis Mansions as a ‘highjacked’ building. According to SERI, a legal rights NGO that assists residents to defend their rights to housing, many residents are being evicted under the cover of the fight against ‘highjacked’ buildings. According to SERI, “In its campaign against “hijacking” of buildings, the council raids targeted buildings after which it prepares a report decrying the overall state of the building, … and uses it as grounds for eviction of the residents”.

As black people began to move into the inner-city Johannesburg the Council removed rent control laws that regulated how much rent landlords could charge. Landlords were afraid of the new dispensation in the 1990s and were not sure how it would affect their investments. Many of them began making as much money and as quickly as possible out of their investments. Rents began to rise sharply and buildings were filled with tenants way beyond their capacity. Building began to deteriorate sharply. Many of these landlords were referred to as ‘slumlords’. They went further and collected rent but did not pay rates and electricity. Once the Council cut services to the buildings the landlords simply abandoned the buildings. This was the origin of the so-called highjacked buildings.

As the landlords began returning to the inner-city the language of the press has changed from that of ‘slumlords’ to that of ‘highjacked’ building. With unemployment rising in the country, and landlords seeing a new market of tenants that can pay more the cities of South Africa are shaping up for vicious anti-eviction struggles as the landlords attempt to squeeze out poor tenants and replace them with new better paying ones.

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